Freedom in the World 2004

Trend Arrow: 

Zimbabwe received a downward trend arrow due to government repression of political opponents, civil society activists, and independent media representatives.


Zimbabwe in 2003 descended into further crisis as the authoritarian government of President Robert Mugabe continued to quash dissent. Economic collapse deepened and food shortages increased along with increasingly rampant corruption, as the government proceeded with its ruinous policy of moving white farmers off commercial lands. A series of strikes called by opponents and trade unions generated harsh government retaliation. Mass arrests, sustained attacks, and severe restrictions were harnessed against opposition members, independent media, and civic organizations.

Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 after a guerrilla war against a white-minority regime that had declared unilateral independence from Britain in 1965 in what was then Southern Rhodesia; Mugabe has ruled the country since then. For a few years, Zimbabwe was relatively stable, although from 1983 to 1987, the government suppressed resistance from the country's largest minority group, the Ndebele, to dominance by Mugabe's majority ethnic Shona group. Severe human rights abuses accompanied the struggle, which ended with an accord that brought Ndebele leaders into the government.

The 2000 parliamentary elections, in which 57 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were elected out of a total of 150 seats, were deemed by observers to be fundamentally flawed prior to balloting. MDC candidates and supporters faced violence and intimidation, and a constitutional provision empowering Mugabe and allied traditional leaders to appoint one-fifth of parliament's members helped to ensure the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front's (ZANU-PF) continued majority in parliament. Voter registration and identification procedures and tabulation of results were judged by independent observers in some constituencies to have been highly irregular. The heavily state-controlled media offered limited coverage of opposition viewpoints, and ZANU-PF used state resources heavily in campaigning.

Mugabe issued a pardon for thousands of people, most from ZANU-PF, for crimes committed during the election campaign, including assault, arson, kidnapping, torture, and attempted murder. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, the rights of more than 18,000 people were violated, and more than 90 percent of the alleged perpetrators were ZANU-PF supporters or government officials.

Mugabe claimed victory in a deeply flawed 2002 presidential election that failed to meet minimum international standards for legitimacy, although a number of African leaders refused to condemn the elections. The election pitted Mugabe against the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai, a popular trade union leader who was arrested and charged with treason in 2003 after organizing national strikes.

Parliamentary by-elections held in 2003 in two districts near the capital, Highfield and Kuwadzanaw, were marred by intimidation of the MDC, which nonetheless won the polls. Party members were prevented from undertaking normal campaign activities and were detained, beaten, and harassed.

In recent years, Mugabe has turned against student groups, labor unions, and white landowners to create the country's worst crisis since independence. War veterans and youth militias continued in 2003 to occupy and disrupt opposition strongholds and white-owned land, with the overt or complicit backing of the government. The government harshly retaliated against a series of national stay-aways and strikes organized by the MDC and trade unions during the year.

An estimated 400 white-owned farms remain out of the 4,500 that existed when land invasions began in 2000. The land reform has destroyed commercial farming, on which exports, foreign exchange, and 400,000 jobs had depended. Unemployment exceeds 70 percent, and inflation, which was at an annual rate of 32 percent in 1998, raged at nearly 600 percent in 2003. Aid agencies have warned that nearly half of Zimbabwe's 12 million people need emergency food aid, largely because of faults in the redistribution policy. Party officials handling distribution have manipulated food aid that arrives, withholding relief from suspected opposition supporters.

Zimbabwe is in arrears to internal and external creditors, which has led to suspension of disbursements and credit lines. This situation has created shortages of key imports, such as fuel. Concern about the land-reform program was one reason that the IMF suspended its financial support to Zimbabwe.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Zimbabweans cannot change their government democratically. President Robert Mugabe and the ZANU-PF, which have dominated the country's political landscape since independence, enjoy wide incumbency advantages that enhance their ability to manipulate political structures to ensure continued control. Although the grip of the ZANU-PF on parliament has weakened in recent years, the party remains the predominant power through its control over the security forces, the media, and much of the economy. Since 1987, there have been at least 15 amendments to the constitution by the ZANU-PF--including scrapping the post of prime minister in favor of an executive president and abolishing the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate--that have given the government, and particularly members of the executive, more power. In turn, popular opposition to Mugabe has deepened, with trade unions often at the forefront, while the opposition MDC has experienced rapid growth.

The year 2003 saw increased activity by ZANU-PF youth militias, which have disrupted meetings and campaigning by opposition members. Political violence prevalent in the countryside has increasingly spread to urban areas as security forces target church leaders and civic organizations, according to the New York based Human Rights Watch. Mugabe has on several occasions invoked the Presidential Powers Act, which enables him to bypass normal governmental review and oversight procedures.

Corruption is rampant. Much of the seized land has gone to ZANU-PF officials, who often have no farming background, instead of the landless black Zimbabweans who were supposed to benefit.

Freedom of the press is severely restricted. There are no privately owned radio or television stations in Zimbabwe, and the state-controlled newspapers and radio and television stations are seen as mouthpieces of the government and provide negative coverage of opposition activities. The Parliamentary Privileges and Immunities Act has been used to force journalists to reveal their sources regarding reports on corruption before the courts and parliament. Internet access is limited but growing.

The 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which gives the information minister sweeping powers to decide who can work as a journalist in Zimbabwe, has been used to silence media critics of the government. AIPPA created a governmental commission that hands out "licenses" allowing journalists to work, and those operating without a license face fines or prison. Authorities in September closed down the one independent daily newspaper, The Daily News, which had been harshly critical of Mugabe, for failing to register for an AIPPA license. A subsequent application for a license was rejected, and five of the newspaper's directors were arrested. Several other Zimbabwean journalists were assaulted or detained in 2003. Foreign reporters face difficulty gaining approval to work in the country and are allowed to stay for only a short time when approval is granted. An American journalist who had worked in the country for 23 years was expelled in May, even though his deportation order was awaiting a Supreme Court hearing.

Freedom of religion is generally respected, but academic freedom is limited.

There is a small, though active, nongovernmental (NGO) sector. Several groups focus on human rights, including the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organization, and the Legal Relief Fund. However, NGOs report increased difficulty in operating. Public demonstrations and protests are essentially illegal under the 2002 Public Order and Security Act, which forbids criticism of the president, limits public assembly, and allows police to impose arbitrary curfews. Meetings are often declared illegal or disrupted by party militias or security forces. Intelligence agencies are among law enforcers empowered to disperse "illegal" assemblies or arrest participants.

The right to collective action is limited by provisions of the Labor Relations Act, which allow the government to veto collective bargaining agreements that it argues would harm the economy. Strikes are allowed except for industries declared "essential" under the act. Mugabe has used his presidential powers to declare strikes illegal, and labor organizers are common targets of government harassment. Most notably, security forces arrested more than 400 people in response to a two-day general strike in March; many were beaten or tortured while in police custody.

Despite coming under increasing pressure by the regime, the judiciary at times acts independently. In the past, courts struck down or disputed government actions, most notably regarding illegal occupation of farms. The government, however, has repeatedly refused to enforce court orders and has replaced senior judges or pressured them to resign. In December 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the government's land-reform program was legal, but subsequent rulings in the separate High Court have determined that many eviction orders were illegal. Some farmers who had been evicted from their properties were granted a temporary reprieve allowing them to return until the Administrative Court confirmed the confiscation of their farms.

Security forces, particularly the Central Intelligence Organization, often ignore basic rights regarding detention, search, and seizure. With a decline in law and order, war veterans have taken over traditional policing roles in land redistribution. The military, too, is assuming more policing in food distribution and elections. According to Human Rights Watch, the government has taken no clear action to halt the rising incidence of torture and mistreatment of suspects held by police or intelligence services. Prison conditions are harsh and degrading.

The prices of many major commodities and food staples are controlled by the government, and state-linked companies dominate many sectors. The current political turmoil and investment flight does not bode well for the private business environment.

Women enjoy extensive legal protections, but de facto societal discrimination and domestic violence persist. Rape is used as a political weapon by youth militias. The Supreme Court issued a ruling relegating African women to the status of "junior males" within the family, declaring that those who marry under customary law must leave their original families behind and are therefore barred from inheriting their property. Married women cannot hold property jointly with their husbands. Access to education for women is especially difficult in rural areas, and women have borne the brunt of the hardships of the agrarian reforms.

2004 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)